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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. X, No. 1
Spring, 1986



2. MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA, directed by Tom Haas. Indiana Repertory Theatre, Indianapolis, February 14 - March 2, 1986.

One of the major problems in producing O'Neill's impressive Americanized Greek tragedy Mourning Becomes Electra is the marathon length of the three plays which make up the trilogy. PBS solved the problem a few years ago by broadcasting the work in several parts. Indiana Repertory Theatre director Tom Haas produced a 2 1/2 hour version, cutting each of the three plays to the length of an act. The shortened script intensified the conflicts among the Mannons in the aftermath of the Civil War and accentuated the melodramatic nature of the piece. O'Neill purists would undoubtedly find the extent of Haas' radical editing a distressing violation of a classic; but thanks to inventive staging, strong acting and excellent scenic and costume designs, the power of O'Neill's themes and characters was revealed with surprising freshness.

In Haas' version all of the action took place on Christopher H. Barreca's sparse setting which consisted of four towering gray columns, a few furnishings to indicate the interior of the Mannon home, and an ornate portrait of Ezra Mannon dominating the scene. Cumbersome scene shifts were thereby avoided and the effectiveness of the selective simplicity of the setting was heightened by the stark lighting designed by Rachel Budin and stunning period costumes by Gail Brassard. But it was the exquisitely choreographed staging by Haas that created an unrelenting series of memorable images. The clarity and detail of the movement made otherwise ordinary gestures, as when Ezra Mannon placed his hand on the shoulder of his unloving wife, electrifying. Haas cleverly eliminated Ames, Louisa and Minnie from Homecoming; Borden, Emma, Hills, Hills' wife, Blake and the Chantyman from The Hunted; and Mackel, Silva and Small from The Haunted, and replaced them all with Seth Beckwith, the Mannon family gardener, as an omniscient presence. Seth spoke many of his lines directly to the audience, framing the central action of the play within Haas' intimate production concept.

The pruning also diminished the tragic overtones and heightened the melodramatic qualities of the work. This, too, might be a distressing slant if the actors had not been able to play the melodrama with the heroic abandon they so capably demonstrated. Emotional transitions were made with lightning speed and fierce conviction. Janet Sarno was superbly commanding as the libidinous Christine Mannon. Her transition from a stalking huntress in Homecoming to a guilt-ridden hysteric in The Hunted charged the first half of the production. Unfortunately, her final moments were marred by a strange and sudden lack of passion. When she confessed to Hazel that "I don't believe there's such a thing on this earth as sleep! It's only in the earth one sleeps! One must feel so at peace--at last--with all one's fears ended," it was difficult to believe that she truly longed for the release of death. And instead of fleeing the stage to commit suicide when she learned of her lover's death, she seemed to be strolling off to take a nap. Michael Lipton was a fine Ezra Mannon and managed to create, despite limited stage time, a skillful portrait of a man tortured by the disgust his beloved wife feels for him. Among the major characters Frederick Farrar gave the weakest performance as Orin Mannon. From his first appearance he was unable to rise to the intense mood created up to that point. And while it is appropriate for Orin to be dominated by the other characters, Farrar's performance lacked the necessary energizing anguish and style that would allow him to project a weak character with strength. Without a doubt, the standout performance was by Amelia Penland as Lavinia Mannon. With stunning ease and power the striking Penland made the roller coaster transitions of emotion inherent in the anguished Lavinia of Homecoming and The Hunted. Her ultimate transformation into a frightening reincarnation of Christine was miraculous, and the play reached an explosive emotional climax when, haunted by the violent deaths of her parents and brother, she hissed, "Why can't the dead die!" Penland, along with Sarno and Lipton, played compellingly and the heightened melodrama was never in danger of slipping into absurdity. Among the supporting cast Marylou DiFilippo was a particularly gentle and sympathetic Hazel; Martin LaPlatney was appropriately slimy as Brant; Craig Fuller was delightfully bland as Peter; and Matthew Harrinton did well with the restructured character of Seth.

This production proved that in the hands of an audaciously talented director a difficult classic can have new life. It is to be hoped that Haas will soon bring his considerable abilities to productions of other works by O'Neill too often considered too troublesome to produce.

--James Fisher



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